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Kunsthalle Wien Curatorial Ethics conference, livestream and coverage

Image courtesy Kunsthalle Wien

Greetings from Vienna! We’re here to cover Kunsthalle Wien’s conference on curatorial ethics, organized by Vanessa Joan Müller and Nicolaus Schafhausen. We’ll be tweeting throughout the conference using the hashtag #curating in addition to writing one or two posts per day on this thread. You’re welcome to follow along via livestream below and contribute your thoughts to this thread any time.

Here’s the organizers’ introductory text:

The verb ‘curate’ derives from the Latin curare and means to attend to something and thus also to take responsibility – for an exhibition, for the participating artists, for the works etc. In the business world the code of ethics, which defines what is legitimate and what is not, is becoming ever more important. In the curatorial field too, important parameters have been shifting in recent years. We have seen subtle but lasting changes in the relationship between public and private collections, together with the handling of the latter, in the relationship between the institutional art establishment and the art market, and finally in the relationship between curators and artists.
So the time is ripe to talk about a curatorial code of ethics: where are the boundaries, what are the grey areas? The point of departure for this three-day conference, in which international representatives of various sectors of the art world will present their viewpoints, is not so much to discuss deficiencies and problems, but instead to fundamentally acknowledge that these exist.

Kunsthalle Wien Karlsplatz

Here’s the program:

Thursday, April 9, 2015
6 pm: Introduction
Vanessa Joan Müller & Nicolaus Schafhausen

7 pm: Total Economization of the Art World
Nikolaus Hirsch, Tom McDonough, Deimantas Narkevičius, Monika Szewczyk (en)

8 pm: The Imperative of Responsibility
Art and Ethics: New Values for the Field of Art
Susanne Pfeffer, Barbara Steiner, Julia Voss (de)

Friday, April 10, 2015
2 pm: Where to, Vienna?
Eva Blimlinger, Matti Bunzl (de)

3 pm: New Ways: Private Money and Public Institutions
Tobia Bezzola, Catrin Lorch, Peter Pakesch (de)

4 pm: Ambitioned vs. Instrument
John Beeson, Fabian Schöneich (en)

5 pm: Profession: Curator
Lorenzo Benedetti, Beatrice von Bismarck (de/en)

6 pm: Art as Luxury Commodity?
Harald Falckenberg, Julia Voss (de)

7 pm: Art and National Representation
Lolita Jablonskienė, Tom McDonough (en)

Saturday, April 11, 2015
2 pm: Critical Affirmation / Media between Affirmation and Critique
Pernille Albrethsen, Jörg Heiser (en)

3 pm: To Produce, To Exhibit, To Market: Artproduction today
Catrin Lorch, Eva Maria Stadler, Markus Weisbeck (de)

4 pm: Society of the Spectacle
Nicolas Bourriaud, Tom McDonough (en)

5 pm: Art, Politics and Society
Defne Ayas, Bart de Baere, Fulya Erdemci, Nikolaus Hirsch (en)

6:30 pm: Criticality in Crisis
Clémentine Deliss, Anselm Franke, Monika Szewczyk (en)

Speakers include: Pernille Albrethsen („Kunstkritikk“, Copenhagen); Defne Ayas (Witte de With, Rotterdam); John Beeson (Art critic, Berlin); Lorenzo Benedetti (De Appel Arts Center, Amsterdam); Tobia Bezzola (Folkwang Museum, Essen); Beatrice von Bismarck (Academy of Visual Arts, Leipzig); Eva Blimlinger (Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna); Nicolas Bourriaud (École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, Paris); Matti Bunzl (Wien Museum); Bart de Baere (MUHKA, Antwerp / 6th Moscow Biennale); Clémentine Deliss (Weltkulturen Museum, Frankfurt am Main); Fulya Erdemci (13th Istanbul Biennale); Harald Falckenberg (Private collector, Hamburg); Anselm Franke (Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin); Zoë Gray (WIELS, Brussels); Jörg Heiser (Frieze, Berlin); Nikolaus Hirsch (Architect and Curator, Frankfurt am Main); Lolita Jablonskienė (Lithuanian National Gallery of Art, Vilnius); Catrin Lorch (Süddeutsche Zeitung); Tom McDonough (Comparative Literature, Binghamton University), Deimantas Narkevičius (Artist, Vilnius); Peter Pakesch (Universalmuseum Joanneum, Graz); Susanne Pfeffer (Fridericianum, Kassel); Fabian Schöneich (Portikus, Frankfurt am Main); Eva Maria Stadler (University of Applied Arts Vienna); Barbara Steiner (Curator); Monika Szewczyk (Documenta 14); Julia Voss (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung); Markus Weisbeck (Bauhaus-Universität, Weimar / Surface)

Concept: Vanessa Joan Müller, Nicolaus Schafhausen
Assistant: Juliane Bischoff

Tom McDonough, Monika Szewczyk, Nikolaus Hirsch, Deimantas Narkevičius

Here are the abstracts for today’s talks:

7 pm: Total Economization of the Art World
Panelists: Nikolaus Hirsch, Tom McDonough, Deimantas Narkevičius, Monika Szewczyk (en)

The fifty-one billion Euro art market of 2014 is an all too visible symptom of a wider historical condition: economization, or the ideology that all values are most accurately controlled if reduced to their economic dimension. The cause for entire European nations to suffer under its punitive guise, which is more commonly known as Austerity, economization poses a more esoteric test for the art world. How to mediate and temper the financial market’s demand for the type of value the art world has proven so uniquely capable of producing?

8 pm: The Imperative of Responsibility
Art and Ethics: New Values for the Field of Art
Panelists: Susanne Pfeffer, Barbara Steiner, Julia Voss (de)

In the field of art, important parameters are shifting. We are seeing subtle but lasting changes in the relationship between public and private collections, together with the role PR plays in the perception of the latter, in the relationship between the institutional art establishment and the art market, between artists and collectors, and finally in the relationship between curators and artists. The imperative is now to talk about a curatorial code of ethics: where are the boundaries between public and private, what grey areas cloud thinking, and how best to protect the interests of artists? As art world professionals, steps towards a solution seem clear: to draw from collective experience and institutional memory to define a way forward in the changed landscape of the art world today.

Kunsthalle Wien director Nicolaus Schafhausen, courtesy Deutscher Pavillon

The first day of the Kunsthalle Wien conference on curatorial ethics was a short one, with just the introductory remarks and one panel in English. Here are the co-organizers opening remarks:

As defined by Adam Smith, the laws of supply and demand are still a basic framework for understanding how the economic system works. According to Smith’s explanation there is no “supply” of artworks. Looked at from the perspective of this simplified lesson in economics we can see a possible explanation for the peculiar state of the contemporary art world today: The impossible-to-value artwork becomes the object of impossible value.
–Nicolaus Schafhausen, director/Direktor Kunsthalle Wien

Es soll bei unserer Konferenz nicht ein weiteres Mal um die Verwerfungen des Kunstmarkts gehen, die explodierenden Preise und die Degradierung von Kunst zum wertsteigernden Asset. Uns interessieren vielmehr die unscharf werdenden Konturen zwischen privatem und öffentlichem Engagement und die Frage nach den Aufgaben des Staates als Förderer von Kunst und Kultur und den Interessen des Kapitals, in diese öffentlichen Bereiche zu intervenieren.
–Vanessa Joan Müller, dramaturg/Dramaturgin Kunsthalle Wien

The introductory conversations focused on questions of market entanglement in the arts, and the evolving function of the art object in a neoliberal economy. Given that we are experiencing historic levels of both income inequality and art market prices, do these works serve as alibis for the wealthy? Perhaps we are experiencing the full-bloom effects of neoliberal policies planted during the Reagan and Thatcherite era. Yet, even as the 1% collapses the middle class and perpetuates austerity for most of the world, culture, to include art, still emulates 1% values, says Schafhausen. He brings up Kim Kardashian as an example of “where culture is going” in neoliberal society, though it’s unclear whether this is a negative or positive thing, as he seemed quite excited by the prospect. Is Kardashian meant to signify a hollowing out of culture, or the propensity to capitalize on personal brands? Schafhausen deflected the assumption that his interest in Kardashian was ironic “pop kitsch,” although the celebrity herself seems very much interested in casting herself as such and reaping the profits from exploiting her own image. Later, panelist Monika Szewczyk of Documenta 14 referred to Kardashian as “a commodity, albeit in a monstrous form.” While it’s certainly nothing new to refer to women as commodities, it seems pertinent to talk about how lifestyle and branding have come to the fore in discussions about art. Take MoMA’s recent Björk exhibition for example, which has been largely derided for attempting to turn the museum into a lifestyle brand.

The first panel, titled “The Total Economization of the Art World,” fully accepted that the art world was totally economized, and offered conjecture on the potential for art to opt out of total economization. It featured Tom McDonough (Comparative Literature professor, Binghamton University), Monika Szewczyk (a Documenta 14 curator who just moved to Athens), Nikolaus Hirsch (an architect and curator and former Portikus and Städelschule director in Frankfurt/Main), and Deimantas Narkevičius (an artist based in Vilnius, Lithuania). They spoke about the potential for university galleries as being ideal spaces for exhibition making outside of the market setting. Each panelist individually shot that idea down. Szewczyk said, “The funny thing about making exhibitions in universities that are the products of neoliberal policies is that you can use this funding to work with artists with no gallery representation,” and discussed the work of Ika Knežević. Szewczyk had shown “Nine Hour Delay” (2012-ongoing) at the Logan Center for the Arts at University of Chicago, which centers around Borosana shoes, which were famously created in the 1960s by Croatian women factory workers who needed to stand long hours. Getting back to the university context, Tom McDonough added, “not too long ago Dave Hickey wrote a vitriolic article about how universities show idealistic art that cannot exist in the real world. Now, Dave Hickey cannot exist in the real world and we look at university galleries as a refuge or protected zone.” But universities aren’t necessary ideal zones anymore, and they’re often times cities’ largest real estate holders, notes Szewczyk. As we’re quickly finding out, they’re also increasing proponents of precarious labor.


Vanessa Joan Müller, Lorenzo Benedetti, Beatrice von Bismarck

Greetings from Vienna, day three! Here are the abstracts from yesterday’s talks, with my reflections below.

Ambitioned vs. Instrument
John Beeson, Fabian Schöneich (en)
Use of the job title “curator” when it is not connected to the care of museum artifacts, is a relatively recent development. A part of the accelerated expansion of all aspects of the art profession over the last fifteen years, the job of curator has the attraction of allowing its practitioners to be public intellectuals, hence the popularity of curatorial studies degrees. Yet paradoxically, increased demand for the kind of applied thinking that curators can excel at takes place within an art context that has become increasingly compromised by the private interests of art commerce. How do emerging curators see the profession today? What ambitions can the job fulfill when faced with the potential it holds for instrumentalization?

Profession: Curator
Lorenzo Benedetti, Beatrice von Bismarck (en)
Can curation be formalized as a profession as if it were a kind of science, or more likely a branch of the Liberal Arts? And to what extent is such a professionalization desirable or even possible? These are questions that need to be asked even if degree-granting institutions internationally have deemed it appropriate to create Masters and even PhD programs in art curation. What, if anything, gets lost in this probably inevitable evolution of the curatorial role? And on the flipside, why would the current generation of non-credentialed art curators see professionalization as a problem?

Art and National Representation
Lolita Jablonskienė, Tom McDonough (en)
The communist era was perhaps unique in history for its efforts to ensure that art production followed ideologically-mandated guidelines. The Socialist Realist artworks that resulted show the distinctive one-dimensionality of this predetermined conformity. However, the comparative freedom enjoyed by artists in the Post-Cold War world can be exposed too as something of an illusion. As recently as last month, the Director of the MACBA in Barcelona resigned after the venue exhibited a sculpture deemed insulting to the former Spanish King. Artists and institutions are often dependent on State funding, what kind of self-censorship results?

The first English panel of the day, Ambitioned vs. Instrument, featured John Beeson, (Art critic, Berlin), Zoë Gray (WIELS, Brussels), and Fabian Schöneich (Portikus, Frankfurt) and explicitly brought up issues of ethics related to curating as a form of cultural production. They first looked to artists: How do artists recapitulate neoliberal behavior? How about artists who have obviously actively left a set of ethics? One example, says Beeson, is Bernadette Corporation, who emulates the procedures of an actual corporation.

But how are curators unethical? The panel experienced difficulty in coming up with ideas—which to me, as someone who lives in New York and recently curated an exhibition in Beijing, was kind of quaint. Some curators behave unethically by conceiving exhibitions by first picking a theme and then finding artists who fit that theme, rather than the other way around. Perhaps this approach is unethical, says Schöneich, as artistic production should be considered first. Does this increasing tendency to curate by theme have anything do to with the way curating is taught, Gray asks? Perhaps this is because the curators teaching curatorial courses are of a previous generation who are invested in a dialogue in the curator as auteur, she notes.

The intellectual ambitions of the curator seem to act as a tell as to whether that curator will act in good faith. Sometimes curators are interested in seeing their own version of the world manifest, says Schöneich. Beeson asks the two what their own procedures are, given that it’s a popular notion that art criticism is popularly thought of as being parasitic, or subservient to art. Is curating the same way? Gray says that it’s easy to be self-effacing on stage with a microphone, but that yes, largely she sees herself as subservient to the role of the artist, and prefers curating solo shows.

Beeson says he doesn’t feel the same way about writing art criticism. He feels that he should actively contribute to discourse. Gray jokingly says that he seems like he sees himself as an instrument, and this begets a discussion about what being instrumentalized means. Gray brings up the idea of the intern being problematically instrumentalized, but Schöneich says that their instrumentalization is their own decision, that they aren’t forced into it. I found this surprising given the fact that I graduated into the 2008 recession with 140k USD in debt after my undergraduate education at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and it certainly did not feel like an autonomous decision to intern for free, or freelance for many years after. While no one is literally forcing the hands of interns to work for free, I think we could agree that our environmental conditions often force us to do so, which has perpetuated this problematic (and probably often illegal) status quo in cultural sectors for years. Luckily, with initiatives such as W.A.G.E., this is beginning to change.

Unfortunately, I can’t see how an “initiation period” of unpaid labor does anything but continue to privilege those of the upper class who can afford to work for free. I think this is exemplified in graduate curatorial programs, particularly those in the United States. The second panel of the day, “Profession: Curator” with Beatrice von Bismarck (Hochschule für Grafik and Buchdruck, Leipzig) and Lorenzo Benedetti (de Appel Arts Center), took a somewhat defensive position to this common criticism of curatorial training programs. (Their programs are in the hundreds or thousands of euro rather than tens of thousands of dollars.) Says von Bismarck, “We’re all used to asking whether art can be taught at all. Well, can curating be taught at all?” That is the question!

Both von Bismarck and Benedetti say that their programs are largely not about teaching curators how to curate on a practical level, but guiding them in how to make ethical and considered curatorial decisions. Thus, these are courses in decision making procedures, rather than learning how to write a press release or fill out a loan agreement. But the question remains: why does this necessitate a graduate degree? Again, says von Bismarck, “Today’s curatorial practice implies finding a way in which you want to speak.” That is great, but isn’t basic decision making and communication something that we learn through foundational liberal arts education? von Bismarck said that her program in Leipzig says that her program prepares for the ethical dilemmas one will face while curating, but wouldn’t this be more helpful after you’ve already established some form of curatorial practice and know what you’re dealing with? From the audience, I tried to push back on von Bismarck a bit, saying that it her program sounded more like a remedial program for problematic curators, but she didn’t seem to think that was very funny.

Lolita Jablonskiene, Tom McDonough, Zoë Gray

The last panel, “Art and National Representation,” featured Tom McDonough (Associate Professor and Chair of Art History, Binghamton University) and Lolita Jablonskiene (Lithuanian National Gallery of Art, Vilnius; 2005 commissioner of Lithuanian Pavilion) and Zoë Gray (WIELS, Brussels) as moderator. From the beginning, it seemed clear that it’s a difficult exercise to talk about the merits of national representation given the varied nationalities of everyone at the conference. McDonough, for one, is an American academic, while Jablonskiene is a Lithuanian curator. McDonough offered two lynchpins through which we can view national representation: the Kenyan pavilion at the Venice Biennale, which is showing an Italian artist, and MoMA Warsaw, which has worked to build canon and open it up to set of discourses. “How can nationality be both portrayed and productive,” McDonough asks. After McDonough’s opening address, Jablonskiene noted, that from a Lithuanian perspective, “Marxism means something very different to me than it does to Tom.” She continues, “Contemporary art is not part of the national identity of Lithuania today. There are local artists that are celebrated and then those who actually exist in an international context.” I also believe she said that the Lithuanian pavilion originally existed in Giardini and was taken over by Russia and never returned to Lithuania, but I’m not sure if I got that straight. Yesterday, Deimantas Narkevicius also spoke about the local scene in Lithuania that has a healthy number of collectors, and that is slowly growing into a more international focus.

McDonough spoke a bit about American national representation. “If we look back at the late 1980s in American art world,” says McDonough, “we’ll see that issues related to ethnic and gender-based visibility were central concerns. And then it seems like these issues were eliminated as concerns because of the rapidly growing, hungry market of the late 80s and early 90s.” When speaking of American national identity, it seems more paramount to talk about race, whereas many discussions about European identity this weekend have surrounded issues of class. And certainly, the dire situation of arts funding and trickle-down economics in America seem a far cry from the context of Kunsthalle Wien, where arts funding has been cut but still seems luxurious from an American perspective. Given that this conference is about living in a totally economized art world in a totally neoliberalized society, as end-effects of Thatcherite economic policies and Reaganomics, it seems pertinent to look at American culture funding as a worst-case scenario for Europe. :frowning:


There is no livestream?

Livestream should be here! Sorry about that.


Olaf Nicolai and Tom McDonough at Kunsthalle Wien

Greetings one last time from Vienna, where Saturday we wrapped up Kunsthalle Wien’s conference on curatorial ethics. Here are the abstracts for Saturday’s talks, and again my reflections below:

Critical Affirmation / Media between Affirmation and Critique
Pernille Albrethsen, Jörg Heiser (en)
The recent era has seen a change in professional terminology for those who write about art. Many today would prefer the more neutral “art writer” as opposed to the title of “art critic”. Art critics ply their trade in a sometimes adversarial manner, making aesthetic judgments in reference to classically-determined aesthetic ideals; by contrast, art writers’ do their work according to broader, more ameliorative directives. One role of art writing includes providing important contextualization for the understanding of artworks, but how often does this job become indistinguishable from PR?

Society of the Spectacle
Olaf Nicolai, Tom McDonough (en)
What we can know and imagine about 1967, the year in which Guy Debord published his seminal book can seem almost quaint when judged by today’s standards. Debord’s analysis of how the 1960s West saw a fullscale repurposing of the religious impulse as commodity fetish has gone on to become far eclipsed by our own era’s embrace of an autofictionalized and synthetic self. Instead of sharing the French philosopher’s concern with authentic experience, in 2015 the informed observer must merely find consolation in the knowledge that Isis, for instance, engages in mere optics and stagecraft when it appears to be destroying world heritage sites.

Art, Politics and Society
Defne Ayas, Bart de Baere, Fulya Erdemci, Nikolaus Hirsch (en)
Far from being fully instrumentalized and domesticated by its art market imperatives, the contemporary artworld is a globally active entity – one that provides multiple examples of contexts where art fulfills its autonomous role. Anti-government protests in Gezi Park in Istanbul, for instance, formed a background to that city’s 2013 Biennial and were a factor in highlighting controversy over the event’s Koc Holding sponsorship.What are the contemporary formats of the political in art, and how are i6:30 pm: ts imperatives best articulated by today’s thinkers?

Criticality in Crisis
Clémentine Deliss, Anselm Franke, Monika Szewczyk (en)
An explanation for the current “success” of the art world would be, in part, the entertainment value the art institution supposedly incarnates. A further explanation would be that the art world is subject to a wider phenomenon: the wholesale aestheticization of public life, a consequence of financialization. This tendency poses a threat to not the work of art, per se, but rather the core mission of the institution charged with its stewardship. Criticality, by definition is never going to be the popular position. However, today’s crisis in criticality stems not from a potential lack of an audience, but a more serious problem of wider forces that conspire to work against the formats of its application.

Frieze editor Jörg Heiser, image via Flickr

The first panel, “Critical Affirmation: Media between Affirmation and Critique,” featured Pernille Albrethsen (Kunstkritikk, Copenhagen) and Jörg Heiser (Frieze, Berlin), moderated by Nicolaus Schafhausen (Kunsthalle Wien). The conversation focused on the capacity for art writers to be critical, which they say appears to be decreasing as of late. When you’re freelance in a neoliberal economy, says Heiser, there’s an incentive to not be critical. If you are critical of a colleague or, for example, an influential museum director, you may not get a job that you apply for in six months time. “How do you navigate the art world when it has become an industry,” asks Pernille Albrethsen. The panel talks about how the art world has become an industry where celebrities and influential figures hold an inordinate amount of resources and power, and thus they’re difficult to publicly react against without fear of retribution.

The Bjork exhibition is a good example of a critic’s capacity to be critical en masse, says Heiser. While it’s possible to curate a good Bjork exhibition, Biesenbach did not, and this celebrity environment obviously created a yes man syndrome. “They basically just say to each other all the time how fucking great they are. And it makes you really dumb,” says Heiser. “If I were Bjork, I would be terrified of people telling me how I great I am. Of course you’re showing your work because you like it, but curators should still have the latent possibility to make informed decisions…”

Schafhausen shifts gears a bit and says that he thinks most art exhibition writing is too complex and theoretical and doesn’t reach broader audiences. “Most writing that you think is too complex and theoretical is probably just bad writing,” says Heiser. He gives an example of an exhibition in Italy in which the artist said “This exhibition is about time…. and death,” which is too sweeping and grandiose for him.

How about new forms? Schafhausen notes a lot of media outlets quoting each other in reviews. And Mousse, for example, doesn’t even have a reviews section, which helps when you’re distributing the magazine for free in galleries. There’s Art-Agenda, says Albrethsen skeptically, which she says is funded through gallery announcements. She finds Art-Agenda to be problematic because it primarily covers commercial gallery exhibitions. Heiser points out that Art-Agenda actually covers triennials and art fairs, and is willing to publish negative reviews, which seems somewhat of a rarity today. Personally, I find Albrethsen’s criticisms a little shortsighted—how are we to fund publications if not through advertising? State funding? Heiser brings up that in the naughts when Jörg Haider came into power in Austria as a right wing cultural minister, the Austrian art community was scared about arts cultural funding being cut. “It didn’t end up being as bad as we possibly imagined,” says Heiser, “but it made us realize that we’re beholden to politicians to fund our publications.” So what’s the alternative here to publications being funded by advertisement or being beholden to publications? Working for free?

An editor from Süddeutsche Zeitung chimes in and asks, “If publications are state funded, how are publications responsible to the public? Regarding the current rise of popularity in art journalism, (art writing about the people and events surrounding art, rather than art criticism, art writing about art itself), people love reading about people; about stories about the artist; these stories always have happy endings.”

I’m curious to hear others’ thoughts on the rise of art news and art journalism as compared to stalwart art criticism. Just in the last few years, we’ve sees sites like ArtNet News, Gallerist New York, Blouin ARTINFO, and others explode with popularity. These sites seem much more trafficked than the website of frieze or Artforum, though few artists, curators or writers that I know seem to find the popularity of art news a winning development.

The day’s second panel in English, “Society of the Spectacle,” featured again Tom McDonough (Associate Professor and Chair, Art History, Binghamton University), and Olaf Nicolai (Artist). Nicolas Bourriaud was scheduled to come but he forgot that his passport expired. Nicolai notes that McDonough writes for October and when he does so is very serious, and asks if he can be mean. McDonough responds, “Because the critic is so self-conscious of herself existing within a system, meanness is very rare.”

Defne Ayas, Nicolaus Hirsch, Fulya Erdemci, Bart de Baere, Zoë Gray

The third panel of the day is “Art, Politics and Society” featuring Defne Ayas (Witte de With, Rotterdam), Bart de Baere (MUHKA, Antwerpen / 6th Moscow Biennale), Fulya Erdemci (13th Istanbul Biennale), Zoë Gray (WIELS, Brussels), Nikolaus Hirsch (Architect and Curator, Frankfurt am Main). Most of the panelists have worked in areas marked by conflict, specifically Istanbul and Russia. Many complex thoughts and questions were raised by the panelists: “Any art project in the public domain should locate conflict and split it open,” says 13th Istanbul Biennale director Fulya Erdemci. “We speak a lot about the function of art, but what about its capacity? What is art responsible for?” asks 6th Moscow Biennale curator Bart de Baere. “How much do we need to know to perform institutionally or curatorially?” asks Witte de With director Defne Ayas. “How much do I need to know about hip hop, or the avant-garde?” she asks. It’s generally agreed upon by the panelists that biennales are meant to open up new spaces for what are not happening yet.

Given that panelists Defne Ayas, Bart de Baere, and Nicolaus Schafhausen will curate the next Moscow Biennale, there were a few questions from the audience about their curatorial autonomy in such an oppressive environment, especially in light of Kaspar König’s rickety Manifesta in St. Petersburg last year. A member of the audience interjected that König had little control over the resources he brought into Russia, and that his venue rental money was rerouted to fighters in Ukraine. The panel talked optimistically about previous successful biennales in conflict situations, such as Erdemci’s 13th Istanbul biennale, or her Turkish Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, which launched amidst the Arab Spring in 2011. ‘Artworks have a power to unfold political situations critically,’ says Erdemci.

But isn’t the situation in Moscow different, given that Putin controls Russia geographically, economically, and culturally, this total control extending through both brute force and corrupt back channels? Remember, it is still illegal to be gay in Russia, and crimes such as Pussy Riot’s “hooliganism” are punishable by years in prison. Given that König’s money was rerouted to fight Ukrainians, and that the biennial could be viewed as proof of a healthy Russian cultural fabric, to what extent does the Moscow biennale endorse Putin’s Russia? Is it possible to dismantle the master with the masters tools? When do we conscientiously object to exhibition making in nations run by dictatorial leaders? To Moscow Biennale curator Bart de Baere, these questions remain questions; that is to say, the end is yet to be determined, and they should be explored.

Clémentine Deliss, Anselm Franke, Monika Szewczyk

The last panel, “Criticality in Crisis,” featured Clémentine Deliss (Weltkulturen Museum, Frankfurt am Main), and Anselm Franke (Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin), and was moderated by Monika Szewczyk (Documenta 14). The conversation largely focused on the problematics of institutions asking artists to solve social problems, while the panelists drew out their own procedures working as art curators/directors of “world culture” institutions. Deliss took an ardent negative bent against ethnographic curating, which she saw was belittling to the source culture. To end on an interesting prescription that Deliss makes, she suggests that, in today’s climate, with young curators having so little idea of where they will work or how they will make a living, perhaps the way in which we could think of the concept “criticality in crisis” is by reformulating conventional questions to include the condition of precarity. Whether or not monied directors of famous institutions will be able to do that is yet to be seen.


Unfortunately they took the video down as soon as the live broadcast was over:

In regards to that penultimate conversation with Defne, Fulya, Nicolas, Bart, etc, I’m very curious to know where that audience member is getting his intel. I’m pretty sure Russia can find the funds it needs to do what it wants in terms of military action without relying on a Biennale bake-sale. (Especially as this one really wasn’t blockbuster. In fact, the exhibition was reportedly so strapped for cash that the St Petersburg staff had to go without pay the last few weeks.) Also, if the audience member was referring to the homosexual propaganda law, this is a law that forbids the active promotion of homosexuality to minors. There is also a law preventing single-sex couples from adopting. To my knowledge, Russia has no legislation explicitly criminalizing homosexuality (actually, not just to my knowledge - here’s a list of 76 countries where homosexuality is illegal, Russia not being one of them.) As for the idea of Manifesta as “proof” of a healthy cultural fabric, proof for whom? From what I gathered, the exhibition pretty much came and went for the better part of the local population, with little real resonance. I mean, even the Eisenman painting, or that series of Dumas’s watercolors that made such a splash in the Times - this, again to my knowledge, hardly caused any real stir, other than some minor frustration for tour groups, who had to be rerouted to see their Matisses. (Through apparently Kristina Norman’s action - which involved erecting a Maidan-esque Christmas tree on the Palace Square - did raise a little kerfuffle.) And if the proof is then for the benefit of a very limited slice of the international art world? Russia has plenty of its own cultural institutions without having to rely on imports. What should be of more concern, perhaps, is how dramatically the current Ministry of Culture has slashed the biennale’s budget. I will watch this one for sure whenever the video comes back up, as hopefully they touched on the more interesting question of how do you fundraise in this kind of climate? What justifications and rationale are used? What makes it “worth it” for sponsors to contribute to a cause when the Ministry of Culture chooses not to?


When there is no production budget from the organizers of a biennial, the burden falls to artists themselves and you end up in a situation where artists represented by affluent galleries or supported by collectors can still produce a significant project, while artists without such support have to reduce the scope of their work or go into debt. Venice biennale is one example of such an arrangement, in which some artists have whole teams of installers flown from New York by their dealer, while others are left to make do somehow. In some cases, like with the documenta, this is even more extreme and artists are not only asked to raise funding for their own production, but some of this funding is then kept by the institution to cover costs not directly related to production of artists work: for general administrative costs, for security, for costs of the catalogue, and so forth. I guess if one wants to discuss curatorial ethics, this is something that really should be addressed.